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NASA scientists use artificial intelligence to achieve revolutionary feat with traditional farming — here’s how it’s helping farmers

“We’re trying to help cultivate this network of people who locally have the tools and expertise to respond to issues that the community is facing.”

"We're trying to help cultivate this network of people who locally have the tools and expertise to respond to issues that the community is facing."

Photo Credit: iStock

NASA is using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to transform modern farming.

As explained in Food Dive, Hawai’i’s agricultural production and food systems have suffered for decades because of ongoing issues of climate change, commercial exploitation, and policy failures. NASA is stepping in to lend its expertise in hopes of addressing food security and rebuilding local agriculture.

Hannah Kerner, an assistant professor at Arizona State University and the AI and Machine Learning Lead for NASA Harvest and NASA Acres, received a research grant in 2021 to assist Maui County in increasing food production. 

Using satellite imagery, farmers, community leaders, and policymakers are able to monitor things like crop health, soil conditions, and water usage from afar. Artificial intelligence is then used to analyze real-time data and provide the insights needed to address food insecurity.

“There’s a need at the basic level to be able to monitor how much food and where food is being grown in the county,” Kerner said.

Hawai’i allocates less than 1 percent of the state budget to agriculture, but its dependence on mainland imports has caused Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to disproportionately face higher rates of food insecurity. Maui County reports the state’s highest prevalence of food insecurity, especially in the wake of the devastating August 2023 wildfires.

To address the issue, Kerner and her team at NASA Harvest, an agency consortium focused on food security and environmental resiliency, created high-resolution spatial maps specific to each crop type. The hope is that the data provided will help influence government decisions about the best avenues for increasing agricultural production and efficiency.

NASA’s data was also used to map out burned areas to help community organizers distribute aid as quickly as possible following last year’s wildfires. Nicholas Winfrey, president and chief professional officer of Maui United Way, said the tool allowed $7.5 million in disaster relief to be distributed to impacted residents within two months of the Lahaina fire.

“We’re building out an automated system with that tool so when these disasters happen again … the United Way or others can actually work on getting direct assistance out to those impacted individuals even faster,” Winfrey said.

Kerner said there’s an expectation that the first phase of the Maui food security dashboard will be completed in early 2024. NASA Harvest’s sister organization NASA Acres, another consortium launched in March 2023 focused on U.S. agriculture and food security led by the University of Maryland, will be funding Kerner’s team’s work in Maui over the next five years.

“I think we’re trying to help cultivate this network of people who locally have the tools and expertise to respond to issues that the community is facing,” Kerner said. “That’s food security largely, but then it’s fires, and it’s also invasive species and flooding and development. There are so many things.”

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